Top 8 of ’08: Number 7  //  The margins between victory and defeat, and the myopia of sports science

11 Dec 2008 Posted by
Since the 1970’s, the Olympic Games have thrust human performance squarely into the limelight. The margin between Olympic gold and failure is so small, so intangible, that four years of work and training can often be undermined by the length of a fingernail. And so the seventh biggest story of the year, through the sports science lens, is the margin between success and failure, and my somewhat philosophical perception of the role of science in determining the outcome.

Much of this is inspired by my own personal experiences this year, first with South African sport (where science is non-existent, and where the sports science is viewed so narrowly as to make it obsolete), and then with the SA Sevens Rugby Team, where the coach (Paul Treu) and manager (Sebastian Prim) have shown South Africa just what proper intellect and science can do for performance, and created the template for high performance success that the rest of the country, maybe even the world, should be copying in the future (rest of SA, take note).

Race of millimeters

Take for example the picture below, which I’m sure many of you have seen. It is a photo taken from the bottom of the Beijing pool, and it shows, on your left, Michael Phelps, on his way to his 7th gold medal, and on your right, Milorad Cavic of Serbia, on his way to a silver medal in the 100m butterfly event.

Had you not seen this race, however, you’d be tempted to tell me that I’ve mixed up my right and left. There is no way, surely, that Cavic, on your right, can lose this race. He has led for 99.5 m of a 100m race, and is centimeters from the wall. But Phelps touched first, by 1/100th of a second, in one of the moments of the Games.

Phelps fly 4

It is against this backdrop, where gold and silver, history and anonymity are separated by millimeters, that sports sciences and the value of attention to detail become apparent. If you look at Cavic on your right, you’ll see that as part of his early reach for the wall, he has begun to hyperextend the neck, and the result is that his head is starting to rise out of the water. Phelps, on the other hand, has made a call to get one last stroke in. His head is down, his arms are making one final sweep for the wall, and he is about to pip Cavic on the line.

What this race comes down to then, is Cavic’s head position, which may have increased his drag (this is according to Phelps himself), and the timing of a lunge for the wall. Such are the margins between gold and silver. Phelps goes on to become the first man in history to win 8 gold medals at a Games, Cavic may never again be so close to an Olympic gold and a place in history as the man who denied Phelps the perfect Games.

Sports science – a marketing myopia and short-sightedness that creates lose-lose situations

Now, this may not seem like a normal application of science to you, and herein lies the key point – our understanding of human performance has evolved, and hence the way we apply sports science to performance must be revised. It is no longer acceptable to simply define sports science as the measurement of a VO2max and lactate concentration during a test on a treadmill or stationary bike.

This understanding is unfortunately what we sit with in South Africa. To many, sports science means a finger-prick, a VO2max test and a laboratory where performance outcomes can be conveniently measured and predicted based on a set of nice, ordered numbers. I am sure that many of you reading this are familiar with this kind of attitude or approach to sports science – “What do you do as a sports scientist?”, is the common question. “Well, we measure VO2max values and lactate values and can tell you how fit you are or how good an athlete you are” is the common, and ultimately ignorant answer. Remarkably, this is the level of service that is offered to most sports, certainly in South Africa, perhaps around the world.

It is an attitude that comes from sports scientists themselves, who suffer from the same short-sightedness that marketing expert Theodore Levitt wrote about in his famous “Marketing Myopia” paper in the Harvard Business Review. Sports scientists often suffer from myopia, not fully understanding their own business and value, and ultimately creating a lose-lose situation, where they fail to add value to athletes and coaches, and eventually reduce their own value as a result.

The consequence of this attitude towards sports science is that the sciences and intellect are relegated to the role of support function, rather than becoming a driving force behind athlete preparation and performance. A few countries have managed to overcome this problem, and have succeeded instead in immersing sports science with athlete preparation. Rather than being a sideline function, sports science should form part of the strategy, an integral part of the preparation of the athlete.

South Africa have not yet done this, and a case in point is the recent decision by some of our sporting codes to veer away from the best expertise and towards the facilities and location. Given the margins for error, the tiny differences that separate champions from losers, one can ill afford to prepare with anything less than the best. When administrators then choose to bypass the best people, they are asking to lose – they are the losers. This pre-occupation with facilities is the inevitable outcome when people are too ignorant to recognize the importance of sports science in the strategy, and would rather use it as a support service only.

The new wave of sports science

What is required from the new view of sports science is a comprehensive, intellectual approach to sport that INTEGRATES and IMMERSES the sciences into the day-to-day preparation of the athlete. My background is in both sports science and management, and I recall the words of a famous management theorist, Peter Drucker, who was known to say that “you can’t manage what you don’t measure”.

And this is where sports science is heading – the measurement of ALL aspects of athlete preparation and performance. Once this begins, it is not difficult to see how the sports scientist, being immersed in the measurement of various performance indicators for the athlete, would soon develop a large role in the preparation of the athlete. Once measurements are being made, they form the basis for subsequent improvements. These improvements are measured, and further changes, in pursuit of further improvements, are the result. The continual measurement, adjustment of training/technique, and measurement of response form the basis for athlete development, and just happen to be the scientific method. This would soon expand into a role in the selection of athletes, the identification of talented juniors, and significant inputs into the strategy of the sport for high performance.

This situation already exists in many nations, where coaches and teams of advisors work with athletes to make sure that every single avenue for improvement is explored. The coaches of many of the technical events, for example, are men and women who hold high level degrees in biomechanics. These are people who have spent years of their lives trying to find ways to find half a meter of improvement, a degree of difference. When you consider that many athletes don’t even video-tape their technique and performances, then the problem becomes apparent – if you fail to invest in intellect, if you fail to immerse that intellect and science in the process of performance, then you will find yourself on the losing end.

And so the 7th biggest story of the year, from the sports science annals, is the changing of (my) understanding of the role of the science in performance.


This post is part of the following threads: News/Controversies, Year-in-Reviews, 2008 – ongoing stories on this site. View the thread timelines for more context on this post.